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Don't Be Bedeviled by These Fundraising Mistakes

Excerpt from Fundraising Mistakes That Bedevil All Boards (and Staff Too)

In my decades of work with nonprofit organizations, I've addressed many recurring mistakes that staff, board members, and other volunteers make when raising money. In this article, let me share three of them.

1. We Can't Raise Big Money—We Don't Know Any Rich People

I once oversaw a church campaign for $12 million in a woefully impoverished area. It was clear from the outset that none of the people involved knew anyone wealthy.

But we didn't let that stop us.

Through a carefully developed plan that engaged the board as well as a community committee, we identified people who cared about the church's work, its pastor, and the parishioners. And they responded generously—one individual gave $1 million—because they shared our values.

We limit ourselves when we think that because we're a small organization, or serve a limited population, few will be interested.

It isn't the size of the organization that matters, it's the importance of the mission. When Project Open Hand, an organization that brings meals to homebound people with HIV/AIDS, was launched, it was from the kitchen of the founder, and the meals were delivered in friends' cars.

Although the group was tiny and the founder didn't know many wealthy individuals, support poured in. Why? The need was great, and Project Open Hand was meeting it. The word got out, and people invested.

You don't need wealthy people in your database to raise money. But without them, there are two imperatives facing you:

  1. You must get your message out and relate the impact of what you're doing to the broader needs of the community, and
  2. You must be willing to think of ways to identify and approach those who do have money.
In the case of the church, their work with the poor and indigent as well as the large ethnic communities in the neighborhood was attractive to the million-dollar donor whose own family, decades ago, had been a struggling immigrant family attending the church. The community had changed as had the origin of the immigrants, but the donor saw that the church and its mission and people were worthy of his investment.

If you don't know wealthy people, make no mistake: raising money is much harder and demands more imagination. But it is not impossible. With dedication—and tenacity—on the part of the board and the staff it can be done.

2. Wealth Is Mostly What Determines a Person's Willingness to Give

When an individual makes a philanthropic gift, at least three factors come into play. He or she has:

  • A connection to the organization
  • Concern for the cause
  • The financial capacity to give
It may surprise you that the first two far outweigh the third. A person can have incalculable wealth, but if she's not connected to the people or services of your organization or doesn't display interest in what you're doing, she's not likely to give.

I know of one organization that wined and dined a man with huge financial resources, hoping for a lead gift. He had a known interest in the kind of work the group did, and he had assets.

But he didn't have a connection to the organization, nor was there much evidence he placed a value on philanthropy.

After months of negotiations the wooing came to an end. "No dice," the man finally said. Time was wasted and, even worse, the person who ultimately did step forward with the lead gift felt ignored during the process.

I probably see this mistake more than any other. Someone will excitedly hand me a list—of potential donors, of people to interview for a feasibility study, of individuals to invite to a particular function. When I ask how these are connected to the organization, more often than not the answer is "they aren't."

Too often, as a starting point, board and staff members will scribble down the names of wealthy people in the community. Give that up. Instead, list only the people you know who share your organization's values. Not only will they be more responsive they'll also be willing to link you to others (perhaps with more money) who care about what you do.

3. You Need a Powerful Board to Have a Successful Campaign

There are organizations across America—particularly universities, hospitals, and large arts and cultural organizations—whose boards are the envy of all.

The people on these boards are leaders in commerce, industry, and education and possess wealth and connections in abundance.

Annually they provide leadership gifts of six and even seven figures. And during times of a capital campaign, their gifts often constitute as much as 80 percent of the total goal.

If this doesn't sound like your board, well ... join the club. For every organization so blessed, there are thousands upon thousands with boards more like yours.

These organizations are governed by people who care deeply about the mission, share what wealth and connections they have, and are willing to work to fulfill the vision. And many excel.

Even if yours isn't a "power" board, you can still have a successful campaign.

Probably the most common alternative is to form a campaign cabinet or steering committee that engages a few members of the board as well as high-profile leaders from the community.

I've found that while many "movers and shakers" may not care to join the board or be involved on a sustained basis, they will participate in a time-limited campaign, assuming they have some passion for the project.

A food bank I know of used this model for its capital campaign and surpassed its goal. Religious organizations have used the same approach with great success. And social service organizations often form campaign leadership organizations that involve both board and non-board volunteers.

Power is a relative concept. Enlist the right people, even if they're not on your board, and suddenly your organization too has the power to mount a successful campaign.

Kay Sprinkel Grace
© 2004. Excerpted from Fundraising Mistakes That Bedevil All Boards (and Staff Too). Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Kay Sprinkel Grace is author of The Ultimate Board Member's Book, Over Goal! and Fundraising Mistakes That Bedevil All Boards (and Staff Too).
Topics: Fundraising